Windows and Mac both basically offer one desktop interface: the default one. Linux is another beast entirely. You can choose whatever desktop interface you like. Overwhelmed? Here’s a list of the top ten desktop environments, to make it easy to compare.
Gnome is one of the two major desktop environments available, alongside KDE. It was the top dog during the heyday of Gnome 2, but its market share has declined since the introduction of Gnome 3. For users who enjoyed Gnome 2, some developers forked the old project into MATE – keep reading to learn more about that.
Many disagree, but I still think it’s a good desktop environment to use. Gnome 3 is based off of the GTK framework that is created specifically for the desktop environment. Is the same framework that a majority of Linux applications use as well, which means that those applications will work well with the Gnome desktop environment visually. If you’re willing to adjust your workflow, you just might find yourself loving Gnome.
KDE is the other major desktop environment, alongside Gnome. It is considered to be the flashiest and most resource-heavy desktop environment of them all. It’s also the one that looks closest to Windows’ desktop without any special modifications or themes. KDE has the most features, as well as a massive amount of settings you can change to customize your experience. There are also a lot of themes available for KDE, so you can really benefit from KDE’s features and still have it look the way you want it to.
Like I mentioned earlier, you do need a bit more muscle to run a KDE desktop at acceptable performance. You shouldn’t expect to be able to run KDE well on a low-powered system like a netbook or an old desktop/laptop, even if you turn off all of the flashy features that don’t actually offer any functionality. The desktop environment uses the Qt (pronounced “cute”) framework, which isn’t used quite as often as GTK is for applications (though there are many apps made specifically for KDE).
LXDE is arguably the lightest option available for a desktop environment, at least among those that the traditional desktop paradigm. This GTK-based desktop environment replaces all of the default applications with even lighter options (think Abiword, Gnumeric, etc. instead of LibreOffice), and it offers no flashy visual effects – nor does it have very good aesthetics in general, without heavy tweaks. However, it’s still a functional desktop that you should consider using if you want something simple and fast.
MATE is a continuation of the Gnome 2 codebase. When Gnome 3 was released, Gnome 2 was officially considered dead and a lot of people were recommended to upgrade or move to a different supported desktop environment. However, there were quite a few people who liked Gnome 2 and wanted to continue to use it, so they forked it and named the new project “MATE.” This was done to continue development on the desktop environment, not only to add new features to it but to make improvements like fix bugs and rework some code.
Xmonad and awesome are the last two desktop environments I’d like to mention. They are both tiling window managers, meaning that — instead of making free-form windows — it creates windows that follow a specific set of rules that you can write yourself. Most commonly, you’ll have the first window take over your entire screen, two windows will be split vertically, three windows will have one window take one half and two windows will split the other half, and four windows will take up a quadrant of the screen.
You can also enable virtual desktops and a bunch of keyboard shortcuts, but the general idea here is that you can configure everything to the way you like it. When comparing the two, people say that Xmonad is a more stable. Additionally, Xmonad uses Haskell for its configuration scripts while awesome uses Lua.